A brazen, hours-long terror attack on the American University of Afghanistan ended early Thursday after at least 13 people were killed and dozens were wounded in the assault on the sprawling campus on Kabul’s outskirts, a government spokesman said.
The attack underscored how despite efforts by the Afghan authorities to improve security, terrorists are still able to stage large-scale and complex attacks, including in the country’s capital, Kabul.
The dead included seven students and one teacher, according to Afghan authorities. Three police officers and two security guards were also killed, the interior ministry said.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the assault but suspicions are pointing to the Taliban. The group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, would only tell the media that the Taliban are “investigating.”
President Ashraf Ghani laid the blame on neighboring Pakistan, accusing it of supporting the Taliban in sanctuaries across the border, and saying the attack had been “organized” in Pakistan. Ghani spoke by telephone with Pakistan’s army chief, Raheel Sharif, and demanded “serious action,” his office said. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry “strongly condemned” the attack.
Ghani’s statement also raised the death toll to 13, saying that a teacher, identified on social media as Naqib Khpolwak, a graduate of Stanford Law School and a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, was also among those killed. Earlier in the day, 12 were reported killed.
“Most of the dead were killed by gunshots near the windows of their classrooms,” said Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. The ministry said 36 people were wounded, including nine police officers.
The assault began just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, a time when hundreds of students typically attend evening classes at the prestigious university, with a suicide car bombing at the university’s entrance.
The blast breached the security walls and allowed two other “terrorists,” beside the driver of the vehicle, to enter the campus, Sediqqi said.
They were armed with grenades and automatic weapons. The siege of the university lasted almost nine hours, before police killed the two terrorists around 3:30 a.m., he added.
More than 200 people, mostly students who had been trapped in university buildings, were rescued by special police units.
Ghani’s office earlier said he had visited some of the wounded in hospital and extended condolences to the victims’ families. He condemned the assault as an “attack on education institutions and public places” and said it would “strengthen our goal to eliminate the roots of terrorism.”
The university, located on the western edge of Kabul, was established in 2006 to offer liberal arts courses modeled on the U.S. system, and has more than 1,000 students currently enrolled.
The university remained closed on Thursday and it wasn’t clear when it would reopen. Faculty leaders could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul called the attack a “cruel and cowardly act” and said it was “ready to assist Afghan authorities with their continuing investigation in bringing those responsible to justice.”
The U.S. State Department said it has accounted for all U.S. citizens at the American University.
“We have accounted for U.S. citizens who were at the university and have no reports of any US citizens killed or seriously injured,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said, adding that Americans “should continue to exercise extreme caution in Kabul and continue to avoid the area.”
The Pentagon said U.S. military advisers were on the ground with Afghan security forces at the university. Spokesman Adam Stump said the forces had been embedded with the Afghan units.
The attack came two weeks after two university staffers, an American and an Australian, were kidnapped from their car by unknown gunmen driving home from the campus after evening classes on a Sunday night. Their abductors were men dressed in Afghan military uniforms, officials had said. The whereabouts of the abductees remains unknown.
The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government for 15 years, and regard foreign civilians as legitimate targets. Last month, Kabul was shaken by a massive suicide bombing that struck a peaceful rally by Afghanistan’s minority ethnic Hazara community, killing more than 80 people and wounding hundreds.
That attack was claimed by the Islamic State terror group, which emerged last year in Afghanistan as an affiliate of the terror group fighting in Iraq and Syria. It was the IS Afghan branch’s first assault in Kabul and the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban regime in 2001.
In violence elsewhere, the spokesman for the police chief of northern Balkh Province said a roadside bomb exploded, killing four people on Thursday morning. Six others were wounded in the explosion, Shir Jan Durrani said, adding that the blast appeared to have targeted a lawmaker, who survived the attack.